Why GOP ‘Insiders’ Thwart Conservative Reformers

Main St. Agenda by from The Weekly Standard, March 17, 2015

Tom Cotton’s letter to the Iranian regime has spurred furious blowback from liberals. They want the president to cut a deal with Iran, and Cotton’s letter gets in the way; thus, they’ve engaged in a specious fight over inter-branch protocol. Never mind that the president is looking to sign an agreement with an enemy without the advice and consent of the Senate. And never mind that Democrats have made similar overtures to foreign governments before.

It’s like that old lawyer’s adage: If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law, pound the law. If you have neither, pound the table. Tut-tutting over Cotton’s letter is a classic example of pounding the table.

Which is why this item from Friday’s Politico was so striking:

One-third of Republican insiders believe that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and his GOP colleagues — including several potential presidential candidates — crossed the line when they published an open letter to Iranian leaders warning about a possible nuclear deal….

“The GOP letter — while sound in substance — caused the debate to shift from the administration’s wrongheadedness to the GOP’s tactics,” said a New Hampshire Republican, who — like all 92 respondents this week — completed the survey anonymously in order to speak candidly. “That’s not helpful.”

It manifestly did not “cross the line,” as Steve Hayes’s editorial in this week’s WEEKLY STANDARD makes clear. What it did was rock the boat, which is something that a wide swath of Republican “insiders” never want to do.

This has been a persistent pattern. Conservatives come forward with bold proposals to reform the way government works — or at least stop some egregious abuse — and GOP insiders warn of dire consequences. We’ve seen that on the farm bill, on the Export-Import Bank, on the Paul Ryan budget plan, on executive amnesty, and now on Iran. Don’t make waves, they warn, lest we risk the majority!

But what is the point of a majority, if not to reform the government? That is the conservative attitude, at any rate, but there is a different view that, unfortunately, has wide purchase in quarters of the Republican party. It is the belief that the majority is a good thing because it means Republicans get to decide how the government pie gets sliced up. Upsetting the apple cart threatens the chairmanship of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of Appropriations, which simply cannot be riskedunder this view. Otherwise, Democrats will get to decide how all that tasty government cheese is allocated!

This is a very old view within the Republican party. In my new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, I tell the story of how the Republican party got in tight with business interests looking for government rents. One particular anecdote is apt. The following is a letter from George Edmunds, a “liberal” (for the time) Republican who — heaven forbid! — actually wanted the railroads to pay back their government loans in a timely fashion. Enter James G. Blaine, the famous orator and party leader, to thwart the effort. Edmunds complained bitterly:

It is my opinion that Mr. Blaine acts as the attorney of Jay Gould (head of the Union Pacific railroad). Whenever (Senator Allen) Thurman and I have settled upon legislation to bring the Pacific railroads to terms of equity with the government, up has jumped James G. Blaine, musket in hand, from behind the breastworks of Gould’s lobby, to fire in our backs.

This is still a common occurrence in the Republican party. When conservatives try to reform government in ways that upend the established order, they end up getting undermined by  . . . Republicans.

What can we possibly do about this? Three things.

First, we have to stop focusing so relentlessly on the personalities of politicians. Edmunds and Blaine are long gone, after all — yet the same dynamic persists. That suggests the problem has more to do with the rules of the game than with its players.

To that end, the second thing we need to do is reform Congress. Today, the institution is premised on a conflict of interest — members of both parties trade public policy to the private groups that subsidize their campaigns and provide for their post-political careers. This lends itself inevitably to the don’t-rock-the-boat mentality, particularly when it has to do with corporate welfare like the Ex-Im Bank, corporate tax loopholes, or the farm bill.

Third, we have to reform the GOP nomination process, not just for the presidency but also the Congress. That’s the other end of the conflict of interest: politicians trade public policy because they believe (correctly) it will get them reelected. If we change the way those elections take place, we can change their incentives.

Don’t get me wrong. The Edmunds quote illustrates that this is an old problem within the GOP, and it admits of no easy solutions. But the only way to improve the Republican party, to make it truly a vehicle for a conservative reform agenda, is to change the rules by which it operates. Otherwise, our efforts to fix the government will be met with fire from our “friends,” straight into our backs.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. His new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, is now available. He may be reached at republic.no.more@gmail.com

© 2015 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.